What do feathers, cocaine, orbs and skulls have in common? Each one was a collectible in a popular open world title. Collectibles act as something the player can look for while exploring the world and a reason to go off the beaten track. However, designing a good collectible system is more than just plopping objects randomly in the world, and more about motivating the player to find them.

1. A Reason To Search: First, there has to be some game-play purpose for collecting them, above going for 100% completion. In Assassin’s Creed 2, feathers once returned to the player’s mansion will increase the amount of money earned, however at some point this becomes worthless, once the player has bought everything.

One area that should be avoided, is only giving awards after a group of collectibles has been found. In Grand Theft Auto 4, the collectibles were in the form of shooting pigeons, in which the player will only receive an award for killing them all.

If you can tie the collectible into the gameplay that will motivate the player more to seek it out. In Infamous, finding enough “blast shards” will increase the player’s energy supply allowing them to use more special attacks at once. While in Just Cause 2, to upgrade your health, weapons and vehicles, you need to find supply crates hidden all over the place. The best example of tying collectibles to gameplay would be from Crackdown.

In Crackdown, there are agility orbs scattered around the city and collecting them gives both a short, and long term bonus. Each orb picked up, will increase the player’s maximum jumping height and over time, the experience earned will improve the player’s agility level, allowing them to run faster and jump even higher.

2. Push the player in the right direction: Hiding miscellaneous doodads is all well and good, but you have to give the player some way to find them. In Assassin’s Creed 2, feathers can only be detected by looking at them, requiring the player to scour around for them. Likewise in GTA 4, picking out a pigeon is very hard to do and there aren’t a lot of indicators as to where they are.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Just Cause 2 has two mechanics in place to help the player find everything. First, is a signal reader that appears when the player is in the general vicinity of a crate and grows bigger the closer the player is to them. Second, every major area in the world has a % completion that tells the player if there are any more items nearby or if they can move on.

With Crackdown, besides the visible green glow, orbs make a distinctive hum when the player is close, cluing them in as to where to find them.

3. Make the player work for it: In order to give a sense of accomplishment with finding collectibles, there should be some sense of challenge to get to them. In Crackdown, this was in the form of requiring the player to find the best way up buildings, bridges and more to reach the orbs. Coupled with the immediate reward for finding the orbs did a lot to motivate people to continue collecting. As opposed to Just Cause 2, due to how agile the main character is, there really isn’t any challenge in collecting them, other than finding them in the first place.

Batman: Arkham Asylum had an interesting system. In each area there was a map hidden that would reveal the general location of all collectibles in the area. Even though it made things easier, the player still had to find the map in the environment.

There is a fine line between making the player work for the collectible and creating an outright challenge. One of the complaints in Crackdown 2 was with agility orbs would run away from the player forcing them to give chase. The purpose of finding and interacting with the collectible should be enough of a challenge. The lure of finding collectibles is that it’s a way to “zone out” in a sense, instead of focusing on missions or side challenges. If you want to design something to challenge the player with a specific task, make it a side mission in the world.

The best indicator that the designer has succeeded is when players decide to blow off missions in lieu of wandering around looking for collectibles. Personally, I’ve done this in Crackdown and Just Cause 2 plenty of times. I spent so much time exploring in Just Cause 2, that I unlocked every story mission in the game, before I started doing them.

There are different mindsets for participating in the different activities of an open world game, some players will want to go through every mission and side quest immediately, while others will want to explore around and take in the scenery. Understanding the differences between the two and designing content around them is a must for creating an excellent open world game.

Josh Bycer.

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Bastion recently made the move from XBLA to the PC and after reading the glowing reviews I picked it up. While Bastion’s main gameplay is somewhat basic, it is easily one of the most stylish games I’ve played this year and backs it up with some interesting mechanics.

The story is one of the best parts of the game. Players will assume the role of a nameless survivor of a calamity that has destroyed his world. The only parts that are left are fragments of land that are floating in the sky. At the start, the player learns that the Bastion is the last refuge on the planet and that he has to make it there. Joining the player in the adventure is the narrator which does a lot to bring life to the game.

Just about every action and choice the player makes in the game will be commented on by the narrator. From hanging around to kill enemies, to choosing specific weapon combos, the narrator will have a remark ready. While this doesn’t serve any real gameplay purpose, it adds a unique twist to the hack and slash genre.

Gameplay is pretty basic; you’ll be running around the beautifully stylish remains of the world, fighting your way through each level. There is a sizable weapon variety, from a hammer, to a carbine rifle and more. Players can take any two weapons, along with a special skill with them into battle. Each weapon can be upgraded multiple times and as an interesting mechanic, each upgrade level the player will have to choose one upgrade from a set of two. What I like is that the upgrades are not just damage, but also can add utility to a weapon. For example one choice for the hammer is between allowing it to go through armor, or giving it a stun effect.

The other unique twist to the game mechanics is how the game handles leveling up and difficulty. Each time the player levels up; they unlock a slot in the distillery. At the distillery the player can select what tonics to apply to the main character and each one provides a unique benefit. The tonics themselves are not restricted by level, only the amount the player can have active at one time. This allows the player to mix and match benefits for a more personalized feel. Leveling up takes a long time, but how difficulty works in the game can help out.

Another building the player finds at the hub is the shrine. Here, the player can set idols that represent the various gods of the world. Each idol will bestow a unique modifier to the enemies. For example, one idol causes enemies to drop bombs that explode upon death causing the player damage, while another one gives enemies a chance to nullify damage against them. For each idol the player activates, the experience earned for beating enemies will be boosted, and with all 10 difficulty idols on can give the player a huge increase in experience.

Being able to effectively alter the difficulty of the game at any time is an interesting mechanic and reminds me of The World Ends With You for the DS. Bastion takes things a step further with having different modifiers and not just altering stats. The game without any modifiers on is on the easier side giving players a way to just experience the story, while having risks and rewards for those that want to go further.

I do have a few complaints about the combat. While the main character is somewhat agile, there is a certain “floaty” sense to fighting. Because the game is played from an angled isometric view, it’s hard to gauge sometimes where the player is in relation to the enemies. There were plenty of times that I swore I was attacking the enemy to only have my attacks hit air.

Each weapon has its own utility, but the actual use of them is simplistic, no advance combos past hitting the attack button repeatedly, which seems like a waste of having all these different weapons. The biggest issue with combat is with defending. The block command is the same as the lock on command for ranged attacks. While there is a manual aim option for ranged attacks, there is none for blocking.

When going up against a few enemies, the lock on feature is adequate. However, when the player is surrounded, they’ll find that they will keep blocking in the wrong direction and without being able to manually turn the character, their only option is to run away.

Bastion reminds me a lot of Braid: a unique game that isn’t for everyone, but still something you should at least try to see what the fuss is all about.

Josh Bycer

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If you ever attended any talks on breaking into the games industry, you may have heard the concept of the “elevator pitch”, where novices are asked to distill their game ideas down to 15 seconds, or an average ride in an elevator. The purposes of this are to help designers’ fine tune and condense their game ideas, as well as focus their thoughts on the best elements of their games.

Taking this concept further, I’ve noticed something about my play-style recently. A game has about 15 minutes for me to get into it, or the chance of me finishing the game is lessen. The reason is that if I run into something that is either bad design, or annoys me that early into the game, that means I’m going to be dealing with it for the remainder of my time.

That doesn’t mean that I should be completely enthralled by the game, just that nothing should be bugging me within the first 15 minutes. In most cases, you can see any UI issues, design flaws and technical problems early. If I run into a situation where I do get annoyed, such as with The Witcher 2, then I usually play the game until I see enough. Even though The Witcher 2 was on my must play list for some time, because of the issues I had with the UI and combat, I stopped playing after starting chapter 2.A more recent example of this would be with Fallout: New Vegas, I was annoyed early on with the design (a discussion I’ll save for another time,) and after a few hours of playing I had enough.

I find that if I do run into issues further into the game, I’m more likely to push through them to finish, such as when I got stuck playing Catherine but eventually got through it to beat the game. I think part of my response has to do with my analytical nature. All the analysis and design entries I’ve written have made me very critical on design. Barring any final stage design changes, I don’t need to play an entire game to see what it has to offer. I seem to go through game content like a lawnmower chopping up grass, if I spend too long on just one game I get bored; in one day, I will play anywhere from 3 to 5 different games.

Because of this mentality, whenever someone asks “if you were stuck on a deserted island with just one game, what would it be?” I couldn’t answer that. The thought of just playing one game, even one of my favorites for a long time would drive me crazy. This kind of thinking also leaves me as having the completely wrong mindset for MMO games. I can never feel like I’m getting my money’s worth with subscription based MMOs as I might play 30 minutes to an hour a day, and then skip several days when I start to get bored.

These days, it’s becoming rare for me to finish games as I find myself playing enough to get all the information out of the game then moving on. On one hand, with each new game I play, I get more knowledge that helps me with my analysis and design. Still, it would look from the outside that I don’t enjoy these games as I don’t finish them. I do enjoy the games I played, but I digest content a lot quicker than most people. Another thing that helps is that I’ve gotten pretty good at playing games and it is rare that I get completely stumped in a game.

One last thing about my play-style is that I like to come back to games after enough time has passed so that I can experience it fresh again. Games like Shadow of the Colossus or Killer 7, which aren’t known for their replay-ability, I have played several times over the last few years.

While I doubt that everyone also follows the same play style, there is still some knowledge here. As a designer, look at how newcomers play your game for the first time. Being new, they will have the freshest eyes on if there are any problems with the UI or understanding the design. While not everyone is going to finish your game, you can at least make sure that they will be satisfied a little longer.

Josh Bycer

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From the title, Space Pirates And Zombies appears to be a checklist of what gamers enjoy and SPAZ tries to combine multiple game elements together in an attempt at modernizing older game design. While there are a few issues, there is definitely a lot of potential here.

SPAZ, like older games doesn’t hit you with a huge story. There’s treasure in the center of the Universe, you’re a pirate, put two and two together. At the start, the game will randomize the universe allowing you to choose how big or small you want it, along with the overall difficulty. Once in game, fans of the classic: Star Control 2 should feel right at home.

At the start, you’ll control one ship, but will quickly get a small fleet of ships. While your fleet will follow you around, you’ll only control one of the ships at a time leaving the others to the AI, but can switch between any active ships at will. Upgrades are aplenty in SPAZ; space stations can have blueprints which can be used to outfit your fleet with new equipment.

As you destroy enemy ships, they’ll drop data which acts as experience along with their blueprint, once you’ve destroyed the same type of ship enough it will become available to be built for your fleet. Leveling up allows you to choose different areas to upgrade, such as better shields or subsystems, this in turn affects their stats and determines what equipment you can outfit your fleet with.

Each system in the galaxy has the same basic schema, the civilians and the government forces are fighting each other. As a pirate you are free to choose which side you want to support which will determine who will open fire on you in that system. Attacking ships and completing missions will determine your relations. Being liked enough will allow you to coast right into a space station where you can buy blueprints. Each system has warp gates to adjacent systems, which are operated by the government. You have two options to get by them; either blow up all the ships at the gate, or bribe the government space station to let you through.

Combat is fast and frantic, as your fleet will go up against the enemies in the sector. Ship defenses are determined by their shields, armor and hull. There is a loose rock paper scissors formula at work: beams beat shields, shields beat cannons, and cannons beat armor and hull. If one of your ships is destroyed, you can build another one as long as you have enough REZ (in-game currency). There is a decent variety of weapons available and each type of ship has a different load-out possible allowing you to design your fleet how you want it. While the randomization helps out a lot with replay-ability, it does present the problems with the game.

First is that having all equipment blueprints set randomly in the Universe, gives the player reasons to explore, but the Universe can be a fickle mistress. You may get lucky and have the blueprints you want within a few systems of the start, or you may be like me and spend hours trying to find the upgrades. While the Universe is vast (as a Universe should be) there isn’t a lot to do at this point. Missions are of the “blow stuff up” variety and every system operates in the same way. There are side missions you can find that mix things up, but for the most part you’ll find yourself blazing through systems to reach the ones you want. My biggest complaint though has to do with progression and that it goes against the randomization of the game.

The main point of progression in SPAZ has to do with your mother ship: the Clockwork. As the ship improves over the course of the game, you’ll be able to store more resources and have a bigger fleet. Fleet size is king in the game, as smaller hulls lack the defenses needed to survive combat for long, forcing the player to use the larger ships. Unfortunately while the player is free to explore, if they want to progress, they’ll need to follow a linear path through the story. After every few story missions the Clockwork will be upgraded and at this point, there are no other ways to increase your fleet size.

The problem is that this puts the player into an awkward position. Their research level will be high enough to use the components they find, but because their fleet is so small, their ships will be focused down and destroyed fast. Players who want to stick with smaller ships will be at a huge disadvantage, as each hanger can only hold one ship, regardless of size. As mentioned earlier, the smaller ships just don’t have the defenses or the numbers to survive in battle against enemy fleets.

Because progression is linear, it forces the player to follow the story to stand any chance of surviving in the game. Just Cause 2 while not set in a randomize world, did find a way around the problem of story and progression. Upgrades for your weapons, vehicles and health, could be found while exploring the world and completing the actual missions don’t provide any benefits other than progressing through the game. This gave the player a reason to explore and rewarded them so.

Even the big twist involving the last word in the title doesn’t offset how repetitive the game gets. From the main screen, the developers are planning on adding more content which should hopefully alleviate my main problem with the game.

SPAZ reminds me of another favorite indie title: Din’s Curse which also took a modern spin on older game design and succeeded. While SPAZ is not quite there yet, it does come very close to scratching that itch I got from Star Control 2.

Josh.

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